It’s June 1914, and illusionist Harry Houdini is hurrying through the crowded, smoggy streets of London, bound for the offices of the Hamburg America Line. He’s on his way to pick up two certificates of passage on a luxurious German steamship called the SS Imperator, which will ferry him and his wife, Bess, home to New York later in the month.
After a series of performances around Britain, Houdini will finally get a glorious break to rest and relax on the high seas before a summer residence at Hammerstein’s Victoria Theatre in Manhattan. For five whole days, he won’t have to hurry at all.
Houdini skids to a stop in front of the Hamburg America building, strolls in, and gives his name to the man at the front desk. Before the man hands over the tickets, he beckons Houdini closer with a conspiratorial air of secrecy.
“Teddy Roosevelt is on the boat,” the man whispers in Houdini’s ear. “But don’t tell anyone.”
Houdini accepts the tickets with a smile and slowly returns to the dull, cloudy daylight. He has no intention of sharing the secret, but not because loose lips sink ships. Instead, he’s already hatching a plan—a plan to trick everyone’s favorite tough-talking, rough-riding former president.
From Mental Floss and iHeartRadio, this is History Vs., a podcast about how your favorite historical figures faced off against their greatest foes. I’m your host, Erin McCarthy, and in this bonus episode, we’re talking about TR’s rather unlikely maritime friendship with Harry Houdini, who might have been one of the only people to succeed in leaving TR truly dumbfounded. This episode is TR vs. Houdini.
Spring of 1914 was an especially busy time for both TR and Houdini, though neither was ever really not busy. Still reeling from the death of his mother in July 1913, Houdini had embarked on a rigorous tour of England and Scotland, where he captivated crowds by escaping from water tanks, swallowing needles, and making various objects—people included—disappear and reappear.
Meanwhile, Theodore Roosevelt was on a rigorous tour of his own. Fever and infection had almost killed him during his South American expedition along the River of Doubt that year, but even that wasn’t enough to keep him home for long. He returned to New York on May 19 and set sail for Europe just 11 days later. Once there, he spent the first half of June on a whirlwind continental jaunt that included visits to Paris, London, and Madrid, where he attended his son Kermit’s wedding to Belle Willard. Roosevelt’s daughter Alice, who accompanied him, described the trip as “a movie run at several times life speed.”
Harry and Bess Houdini boarded the ship, too.
It’s not clear if TR and Houdini had ever actually met each other before the voyage, but they definitely attended the same event on land at least once: the Chicago World’s Fair in 1893.
Officially called the World’s Columbian Exposition, the event was meant to celebrate the 400th anniversary of Christopher Columbus’s so-called discovery of the New World in 1492.
Roosevelt had funded a full-scale architectural reproduction of a hunter’s cabin to commemorate Daniel Boone and Davy Crockett, and he attended the fair with his older sister, Bamie, who had served on the organization’s Board of Lady Managers of New York.
A 19-year-old, not-yet-famous Harry Houdini was also there—performing with his brother, Theo, in a magic act called “The Brothers Houdini.” Maybe TR caught the show, or maybe he became familiar with Houdini’s incredible feats later in his career.
Either way, the two men found each other on the SS Imperator and soon became fast friends. They started exercising together in the morning—at least, when both of them were feeling up to it. Houdini was prone to seasickness, and Roosevelt was still suffering bouts of fever from his Brazilian expedition.
One morning while they were taking a walk, a ship’s officer stopped them and asked if Houdini might be willing to perform at a charity concert the following night to benefit the German Sailors Home and the Magicians Club of London.
“Go ahead, Houdini,” Roosevelt goaded. “Give us a little séance.”
Houdini agreed to what seemed like a completely spontaneous séance—but in reality, it was all part of the cunning scheme that Houdini had been concocting ever since he found out TR would be on board.
The story was recounted in full in a 1929 newspaper article by Harold Kellock, which allegedly used Houdini’s own words from unreleased autobiographical excerpts.
Let’s back up to when the ticket teller had divulged that Houdini would be sailing the high seas with Roosevelt. The magician remembered that The Telegraph had plans to publish the harrowing tale of Roosevelt’s recent Amazonian expedition. After promising not to tell a soul that Roosevelt would be on board the Imperator, he wrote that he “jumped into a taxi and went to The Telegraph office to see what [he] could pick up.”
His editorial friends readily obliged his request for information. They even handed over a map that charted Roosevelt’s exact path along the river. That’s when Houdini decided to hold a séance, where he’d act like spirits were revealing the details of Roosevelt’s trip, as yet undisclosed to the public.
Houdini’s scheme didn’t stop there. A less committed magician might have thought that any old spirits would do, but Houdini wasn’t the best in the business for nothing. In his opinion, the ruse would be more convincing if the secrets were conveyed by one spirit in particular: W.T. Stead, a British editor and known spiritualist who had died on the Titanic in 1912. Houdini had acquired some of his letters while in London.
He planned for the séance to center around a certain trick common among mediums at the time. In it, a participant jots down a question on a piece of paper and slips it between two supposedly blank slates. Then, a spirit “writes”—heavy air quotes around that word, by the way—a response, and the performer reveals it to the audience.
On the slates, Houdini had drawn the map of Roosevelt’s trail and written the words “Near the Andes.” He then forged Stead’s signature on it to suggest that the message was sent straight from the afterlife.
There was definitely still a lot up in the air when he left the Southampton harbor, but Houdini had a plan for just about every detail. The fact that he wasn’t scheduled to perform on the SS Imperator was sort of a non-issue. According to Houdini, he always staged impromptu shows during voyages, so it was probably no surprise when the crew member asked him to do one. And was it luck that TR happened to be standing there when the crew member asked, or had Houdini orchestrated the whole encounter?
As for TR’s suggestion that Houdini conduct a séance, well, that wasn’t exactly a coincidence.
“I found it easy to work the Colonel into a state of mind so that the suggestion for the séance would come from him,” Houdini wrote. Though he didn’t elaborate on what exactly he said about spiritualism during their conversation, he apparently convinced Roosevelt that a séance was a spectacle worth seeing.
Interestingly enough, Houdini would make a name for himself as an anti-spiritualist later in his career by debunking popular mediums, demonstrating that they were frauds by mimicking their techniques and revealing their trickery.
Houdini’s next and most daunting hurdle was not only to guarantee that the question Roosevelt wrote on his slip of paper during the séance was “Where was I last Christmas?” but also to ensure that it was Roosevelt’s slip of paper that he chose.
So the master manipulator prepared to stuff the ballot, so to speak. Houdini copied “Where was I last Christmas?” onto several sheets of paper, sealed them in envelopes, and planned to make sure that only those envelopes ended up in the hat that he’d choose a question from. He was, after all, an absolute expert when it came to sleight of hand tricks.
But this is where Houdini’s plan gets a little questionable. If Roosevelt didn’t write “Where was I last Christmas?,” yet that’s the question Houdini’s spirit answered, it seems like there would be a pretty strong possibility that Roosevelt would say something like “Wait, that wasn’t my question.”
Maybe Houdini realized his strategy wasn’t quite foolproof, because he devised yet another back-up plan. On the morning of the performance, Houdini noticed two books lying on a table in the salon where the performance would take place. After smuggling them back to his room, he sliced open their bindings with a razor blade and slipped a sheet of carbon paper and white paper beneath the cover. Then, he carefully resealed the books and returned them to the salon.
As long as Roosevelt used one of the books as a flat surface to write on, the carbon paper would transfer his question to the white sheet below it. That way, Houdini could sneak a glance at the question even after the envelope was sealed and alter his performance accordingly.
Would everything work out according to Houdini’s plan? We’ll find out after this quick break.
The evening of the séance, the ship’s occupants gathered in the Grand Salon and enjoyed the musical talents of the Ritz Carlton Orchestra and opera singer Madame A. Cortesao.
Then, Houdini took the stage. He conjured silk handkerchiefs. He turned water into wine. He even let TR choose the cards during a series of card tricks.
“I was amazed at the way he watched every one of the misdirection moves as I manipulated the cards,” Houdini recounted. “It was difficult to baffle him.”
Under the watchful gaze of a very astute bull moose, Houdini turned to the audience.
"La-dies and gen-tle-men," he proclaimed. "I am sure that many among you have had experiences with mediums who have been able to facilitate the answering of your personal questions by departed spirits, these answers being mysteriously produced on slates. As we all know, mediums do their work in the darkened séance room, but tonight, for the first time anywhere, I propose to conduct a spiritualistic slate test in the full glare of the light."
He distributed the slips of paper and instructed the audience to jot down their questions. Seeing that Roosevelt was about to use his hand as a writing surface, Houdini generously passed him a book.
TR wasn’t the only quick-witted gentleman in the audience that night. Broadway composer Victor Herbert surveyed the scene and offered a few shrewd words of caution to his companion.
“‘Turn around. Don't let him see it,’" Houdini heard Herbert warn Roosevelt. “‘He will read the question by the movements of the top of the pencil.’” TR took his advice, turning his back to Houdini so he couldn’t be tricked … or so he thought.
“That made no difference to me,” Houdini wrote. Because, of course, the book he had passed to TR was one of the books he’d prepared, with carbon paper hidden under the cover.
After Roosevelt finished writing, Houdini took the book and slyly extracted the paper from the inside cover while returning it to the table. In an almost unbelievable stroke of luck, Roosevelt had written the very question Houdini had hoped for. So Houdini wouldn’t need to slip one of his own envelopes between the slates, after all. In fact, he didn’t even pick a question from the hat.
“I am sure that there will be no objection if we use the Colonel’s question,” he said, to general assent from the audience.
They all watched as Houdini flashed what appeared to be four blank sides of the slates. This was another little trick: Houdini had really only shown them three sides, obscuring the fourth so they wouldn’t see the map. Then, Houdini asked TR to place his envelope between the slates and tell his question to the audience.
“Where was I last Christmas?” TR said.
Houdini revealed the map to an utterly astonished audience.
“By George, that proves it!” TR roared over thunderous applause.
The next morning, TR interrupted their customary walk along the upper deck with a question he had probably been pondering since the stunt.
“How did you do it last night?” he asked Houdini. “Was that really spiritualism?”
Houdini later recounted that he grinned and responded, “No Colonel; it is all hocus pocus.”
According to a 1926 article from The New York Times, however, Houdini claimed that he maintained the charade and told TR that it really was spirit writing. Regardless, it doesn’t seem like TR ever got the full explanation. He died in 1919, years before newspapers shared these behind-the-scenes secrets with the public.
Houdini’s hijinks aboard the SS Imperator did make an immediate splash in the papers. The ship’s radio operator recounted the story to operators in Newfoundland, who then relayed it to journalists in New York.
Oddly, though, those early news reports give a slightly different question—that Houdini did actually choose from a hat—which was: “Can you draw a map tracing the recent journey made by our most famous passenger?”
So are those reports wrong, or was Houdini playing one last trick on everyone? The world may never know the truth. Regardless, news of the renowned magician’s latest trick hit stands before the ship even reached the harbor.
The rest of the voyage passed without any more magic, unless you count the magic of being in love. On June 22, the night after the performance, the Houdinis celebrated their 20th anniversary by hosting a delicious dinner of caviar and several fine French dishes.
Considering his close companionship with Houdini, TR might have attended the event. But it’s also possible he was busy with other things.
“I have been working hard finishing my book on Africa and writing my Pittsburgh speech,” he told The New York Times on June 23, shortly before the ship arrived in New York. He had also made time on June 22 for what he called a “thorough inspection” of the Imperator with its commander.
The bosom buddies parted ways when they reached New York, and it doesn’t seem like they ever got a chance to hang out again. But Houdini, for one, always made it clear that he was proud of his friendship with TR. During the voyage, he had arranged to have their photograph taken together by his assistant. Five other men ended up in the photo, including TR’s cousin, Philip, and Houdini later produced several copies of the photo without the other men. He also called TR “our beloved Colonel” in one letter and referred to himself as “a close personal friend of the Colonel’s for years” in another.
Houdini would eventually go on to perform for TR’s grandchildren at a party in February 1925, six years after TR died. Ted Jr.’s son—who was also named Theodore Roosevelt, and had been born just days before the legendary séance in 1914—proved just as difficult to baffle as his namesake.
Houdini said in a newspaper article, “He was not satisfied with seeing the tricks. He had to know how they were done.”
We’ll be back soon with another episode of History Vs.
History Vs. is hosted by me, Erin McCarthy. This episode was written by Ellen Gutoskey, with fact-checking by Austin Thompson.
The Executive Producers are Erin McCarthy, Julie Douglas, and Tyler Klang.
The Supervising Producer is Dylan Fagan.
The show is edited by Dylan Fagan and Lowell Brillante.
To learn more about this episode, and Theodore Roosevelt, check out our website at mentalfloss.com/historyvs.
History Vs. is a production of iHeart Radio and Mental Floss.